MEETING CAO FEI, AN ARTIST OF HER TIME

I've been a big fan of Cao Fei's work for a long time: she has a rare gift for mixing irreverent humour with genuine poetry and, somehow, a real sense of urgency. Cao has tackled some of the same issues that have occupied journalists in China for the last couple of decades - globalisation, social and cultural upheaval, the implications of the country's economic growth and the aspirations of young people - and in some ways has approached these as a documentarian would. But the video work she creates surprises: instead of focusing on the woes of the the migrant factory workers in her native Guangzhou, she asks them to act out their fantasies; instead of describing the disillusionment of the urban middle class, she interprets their reality as a zombie movie. The absurdity of her choices reflects the absurdity of reality. 

So I was excited to shoot this portrait of her for Bloomberg's Brilliant Ideas series:

 

It's often disappointing to meet people who you have known through their creative work. But not so with Cao Fei, at least in part because, in person, she is so much like her work - charming, thoughtful but with a sting of cynicism to her humour. She works, rather surreally, in a beautiful, abandoned soviet-era cinema in a fading part of Beijing that bears a striking resemblance to Pyongyang, and doesn't look like it will be around much longer. It's retro in a way that is both amusing and melancholic. 

A highlight was taking a stroll with her around a large wholesale market nearby that has been slated for demolition. On the face of it, It's a place with very little cultural value - a cluster of warehouses full of people selling cheap, plastic, everyday essentials manufactured by the kind of factory labourers that Cao has turned her own eye on. As we walked around, she snapped piles of mannequins piled like corpses in empty shops and walls sprayed bluntly with the character for 'destroy' so familiar to city residents. As she shopped for stationary and trinkets for her children in stalls soon to be emptied, dolls in plastic bags became props for horror B movies while stacks of coloured stickers became dynamic sculptures, soon to appear on her Instagram account. Through her inquisitive eye, this place, which was clearly never meant to last forever, became resonant with meaning, and somehow representative of the confluence of so many things that make up China today. Suddenly it became a nostalgic place. But the fact that it would be torn down and replaced by a newer China was totally appropriate and, for whatever reason, it made Cao Fei smile.